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Fictions of Emergency

Publié le 1 janvier, 2008 | Pas de commentaires

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The poems included in Soleïman Adel Guémar’s recently published State of Emergency document the brutal political repression carried out by the Algerian government for over a decade. In them, we find voices of hope, of despair. The great strength of the volume, however, lies in its ability to speak to a larger audience at a time when an état d’urgence is increasingly becoming the norm in international politics.

Kristian Rink, Re-set, 2006
Certains droits réservés.

The publication of Soleïman Adel Guémar’s State of Emergency, a stirring collection of poems brought out earlier this year in a bilingual edition by the UK-based Arc Publications, coincides with the fifteenth anniversary of an ongoing ‘state of emergency’ in the author’s native Algeria. The bulk of Guémar’s verse offers vivid anecdotes of imprisonment, torture and resistance. The fifty-five poems included in this volume were originally written in French, and are published alongside English translations by Tom Cheesman and John Goodby.

State of Emergency

Guémar was born in 1963. He is “almost exactly as old as the independent Republic of Algeria,” notes Lisa Appignanesi in her introduction to State of Emergency, adding that the volume, “with its fine translations, marks an important moment: a record from the inside of a history which is too palpably of our times.1” A record from the inside, indeed, but one which could only be published abroad.

The author, who initially worked as a contributor to L’Evènement and other Algerian newspapers in the early 1990s and then subsequently as a freelance journalist, was forced to leave his country in 2002 when his plan to launch a periodical dedicated to investigative journalism was met with violent opposition from the government. He is currently living in self-exile with his family in South Wales, where he has been granted indefinite asylum. State of Emergency represents the most comprehensive sampling of Guémar’s work, which has appeared previously in such publications as Algérie Littérature/Action and Modern Poetry in Translation.

The poems in the collection are thoughtful and deeply moving reflections on the plight of a people held under siege by its own government. Guémar’s playful use of language, which is often carried across skillfully in the translations, is characterized by a gritty aestheticism, as in the poem “Certitudes” (Certainties): “I don’t trust your rifles/ that silently kill/ solitary hope/ automatically.2” In poems like “Les sans voix” (The Voiceless), the author reiterates the act of witnessing, the compulsion “to speak the terror of murderous minutes/ that regulate the silence.(41)”

Throughout the volume, one finds traces of Guémar’s journalistic vigour, which surpasses mere references to publicized acts of state violence, such as the massacre of more than 500 demonstrators in Algiers and surrounding cities in 1988; or the series of extra-judicial murders carried out in Kabylia beginning in 2001. Guémar refuses to essentialize the crimes of the state—committed by ministers, the police, colonels and gendarmes—in the same way that he strives to show the multiple ways in which violence affects the lives of average citizens, lovers and children. He takes us through the corpse-ridden streets of his beloved Algeria, and then to the bloodstained walls of prisons, where we are forced to observe, as in “Gégène,” that a “naked body/ is sitting/ on the neck of a bottle.(87)

Closely related to the theme of distance is that of exile, which comes up in at least two or three poems in State of Emergency. “La fuite et le pardon” (Flight and Forgiveness) is one such poem, where an individual, not unlike Guémar himself, is contemplating escape, but cannot help but think of “how many of us remain/ who have to stay/ for the necessary hope/ for the necessary/ mourning.(113)” There are, of course, varieties of exile, and Guémar’s elaboration on this theme seems to suggest that one does not always need to be abroad in order to be displaced. Life must go on, Guémar seems to suggest in “Hors jeu” (Offside), even when there is “exile everywhere” (121), and one can never truly feel at home in an otherwise familiar landscape.

Fictions of Emergency

Guémar’s State of Emergency is not the first literary work to take on a state of emergency as its central theme. The fiction of emergency, or what one might call “Emergency Lit,” is far from being a new phenomenon. In fact, some of the canonical works of postcolonial literature written in the past two decades can be placed in this category.

When India’s former prime minister Indira Gandhi imposed a state of emergency on her nation from 1975-1977, numerous writers and filmmakers went to work on exposing the underhanded, often brutal measures undertaken by their government. The latter half of Salman Rushdie’s 1981 Booker Prize-winning novel, Midnight’s Children, for instance, is set during this interregnum. The success of Rohinton Mistry’s critically-acclaimed A Fine Balance, published fourteen years later in 1995, makes it abundantly clear that the Emergency is still fresh in the minds of those who lived through it.

Similar fictional experiments followed the declaration of a countrywide state of emergency in apartheid South Africa in 1986. Almost all of that nation’s major writers—J.M. Coetzee, Athol Fugard, Nadine Gordimer and others—have dealt with this juncture in their fiction, chronicling the impact it has had on social and political life during the 1980s3. The appeal that political crisis seems to have for writers of fiction is not its supposedly transitory nature, but rather its long-term effects.

Narrating the Exceptional?

That Guémar’s poems are specific to the Algerian situation should not allow us to forget that their subject matter is also symptomatic of a broader postcolonial condition. In his oft-quoted eighth thesis on the philosophy of history, published posthumously in 1939, Walter Benjamin suggests that we can learn from the experience of the downtrodden that the Ausnahmezustand, the state of exception or emergency, is not the exception, but the rule4. Such a verdict can likewise be extended to State of Emergency, a collection whose own sense of urgency might find itself trivialized in a global political culture that already thrives on a perpetual state of emergency.


1. Lisa Appignanesi, “Introduction,” in Soleïman Adel Guémar, State of Emergency. Trans. Tom Cheesman and John Goodby. Todmorden, UK: Arc Publications, 2007.
2. Soleïman Adel Guémar, State of Emergency. Trans. Tom Cheesman and John Goodby. Todmorden, UK: Arc Publications, 2007, 39. All subsequent references to the volume will be made within the text.
3. Nicholas Visser, “Drama and Politics in a State of Emergency: Athol Fugard’s My Children! My Africa!Twentieth Century Literature. 39 (Winter, 1993): 486-502.
4. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Shocken, 1969. See also Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception. Trans. Kevin Attell. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

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